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Joe Ely's big songs for little stories

By Brian Baker, July 2003

More than five years have passed since Joe Ely's last studio album, the traditionally flavored Tex Mex brew of "Twistin' in the Wind" and three since his vibrant live document, "Live @ Antone's."

For most musicians, that broad gap between releases could stand as the devil's workshop where distraction and lack of productivity reign supreme.

Not in Joe Ely's world.

For Ely, there is no such concept as downtime. In the void left after being dropped by MCA (for the second time in his career) when "Twistin' in the Wind" failed to meet label expectations at the cash register, Ely went on the tour that would produce "Live @ Antone's," recorded "Now Again," the triumphant second coming of The Flatlanders with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, toured incessantly with both the band and on his own, finished work on a novel, and recorded three albums worth of material in his home studio, two of which he would ultimately reject in favor of the amazingly genre-blended "Streets of Sin," the 14th album of his long and storied career.

"I guess I just like to keep a pace going," says Ely. "If I wasn't always working on something, I'd go crazy."

Ely is far from crazy, a testament to the therapeutic amount of work he does to keep himself off the shrink's couch. The most astonishing aspect of Ely's work ethic is that he has pursued his goals with this same intensity over the course of his 30-plus year career and that he continues this dogged path of re-examination and reinvention at a point in life when most performers have settled comfortably into a singular style.

That kind of musical homogenization is the furthest thing from Ely's mind. He is, after all, the man who helped found The Flatlanders, perhaps the world's first supergroup in reverse, with legendary Texas songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock back in 1970 when they were a trio of nobodies playing to a handful of friends in near-empty joints.

Ely's the man who met Townes Van Zandt by picking him up hitchhiking. Ely's the man who worked as an animal handler in a carnival, a janitor, a dishwasher and a dozen other odd jobs while pursuing his musical dream.

Ely's the man who has more musical credibility in one paragraph of his bio than most labels can muster with their entire rosters combined. The man opened for The Clash and Merle Haggard within the same year and has put out three live albums.

Ely's the man who has stitched together the raw fabric of traditional Tex-Mex rhythms, country, blues and good old fashioned American rock and roll into a dazzling sonic quilt that he calls his style. After doing that for the past 30 years, Joe Ely is, quite simply, the man.

Further proof of Ely's manhood is found on "Streets of Sin," the third album that he's recorded in the interim since "Twistin' in the Wind."

Given that so many artists hold their work in a very personal light, it seems astonishing that Ely can so casually dismiss his own accomplishments but, in a life that has demanded he remain in motion, he has little trouble with moving on.

"I do that all the time," says Ely. "I've got whole projects in my studio that I've worked on over the years that are complete records that I've left behind. I guess I work faster than the label guys can keep up with me. I'm always working on stuff. If I don't release it at the time I finish it, then I'm thinking, 'Well, the timing's not right,' so I start something else. There's something that I worked on for MCA back in '84 for a year and a half, and it just never came out. I started working on two other albums, and they came out."

Ely has given his restless creative soul a great deal of license over the years. He worked in rootsy country during his early career, incorporated solid rock rhythms along the way, dabbled in electronica (on "Hi Res" in 1984), and explored his Tejano roots during his latest phases (particularly with the Grammy-winning Los Super Seven in 1998 and with flamenco guitarist Teye on Ely's "Letter from Laredo" and "Twistin' in the Wind").

He had already recorded and shelved an acoustic album and a full bore rock record when he began working on "Streets of Sin."

With all of the sounds that Ely has explored over his career, the thing that guided his work on "Streets of Sin" was at once the oldest and yet most immediate influence he had ever known.

"When I started working on The Flatlanders record, it reminded me of a tempo and a kind of a feeling of a different era," says Ely. "So I started thinking about that, and I actually started putting this record together with that kind of tempo. It reminded of really great times, of sitting on a porch, reading the newspaper with friends all around. And I also started thinking about things that I had been trying to write, like big songs. Large songs."

Oddly enough, those large songs began to bubble to the surface as Ely continued to ponder his early days with The Flatlanders and how that era spoke to him, as a person and as an artist.

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